When I was at unversity in London, I had an American friend who always complained about the fillings in British sandwiches. His particular gripe was with the ubiquitous Ploughman’s sandwich, available everywhere from grubby London underground stations to trendy cafes. He found it absolutely outrageous that anyone would dream of selling just cheese and chutney between 2 slices of bread. And even more outrageous that anyone would actually BUY it.
I understand where he’s coming from. I lived in the US for 12 years and I don’t think I ever came across the combination of cheese and chutney. But in Britain, the Ploughman’s Lunch is an institution. There is no real recipe as such. Rather, it’s more of an arrangement of cold items on a platter which (at a minimum) must include cheese (usually cheddar), chutney (usually Branston pickle), and a few chunky wedges of bread. Optional additions include pickled onions, gherkins, cold cuts, cold boiled eggs, and salad. Usually washed down with a glass of ale.
When I think of a Ploughman’s Lunch, I imagine that it has a long and interesting rural history. And while there are some records of variations on this sort of dish dating back to antiquity, the surprising truth is that it really only gained popularity fairly recently. It received its official name ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’ in the 1960’s after the Milk Marketing Board started to promote it in order to increase the sale of cheese in the UK. It was particularly popular in pubs where there was not much cooking (or eating) going on (back in the days before ‘gastro-pubs’). So it seems the Ploughmans’ Lunch was all a modern marketing stunt. However, that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s really delicious and there’s a reason why it still appears on British menus.
Like my American friend, I am not the biggest fan of a Ploughman’s Sandwich. But this has more to do with the soggy bread and over-zealous use of cheap chutney. My preference is to eat a Ploughman’s Salad, which includes all the classic flavors of a Ploughman’s Lunch but with more emphasis on the salad. I like to keep the acidic aspect of this dressing quite low because there are are so many tart ingredients in this salad (chutney, gherkins, pickled onions) that you need the leaves to taste very clean to balance the acidity in the other ingredients.
What do you think about Ploughman’s? Love it or hate it?
(Serves 4 as a main course)
Dressing Ingredients: (makes about half a cup)
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
pinch of salt
8 oz / 250g Mature or Vintage Cheddar Cheese block
6 cups lettuce, washed and shredded
24 pieces / 8 oz / 250g cherry tomatoes, washed and cut in half
1 red apple, washed and cut into bite-size pieces
1 Tbsp lemon juice (toss it with the cut apple pieces to prevent them from discoloring)
8-12 Pickled onions, cut into quarters
Pickles / Gherkins, 2 per person if small or 1 per person if large
Branston pickle or any other chutney which goes well with cheese, 1 heaped Tbsp per person
Country style bread, sliced
Butter, to spread on the bread
- To make the dressing, use a cup or a clean jar with a lid. Pour in 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt, whisk or shake it up to dissolve the salt. Add 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil. Shake it in the jar (or whisk it in the cup), and set it aside. There should be roughly 1/2 a cup of dressing.
- Prepare the salad by shredding the lettuce, and cutting the cherry tomatoes and apple. Squeeze about 1 Tbsp of lemon juice over the apples to prevent them from discoloring. Toss these ingredients into a salad bowl.
- Take 8-12 pickled onions (depending on how much you like pickled onions), and cut them into quarters. Toss them into the salad bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- When you are ready to serve, toss the salad in the dressing and place it in the center of 4 plates.
- Take your block of cheddar cheese and carefully slice it. 3-4 slices of cheese per person is usually a good amount. The cheddar may crumble a little when you slice it because it is very mature. If this happens, don’t worry – in the event that the crumbling is very extreme, then simply serve the cheese scattered on top of the salad. Arrange 3-4 cheese slices on the side (or scatter them on top if they have crumbled). On one side of the cheese, place a full Tbsp of Branston pickle / chutney. On the other side of the cheese, place the pickled cucumbers.
- Finish the plate off with a couple of slices of country bread. Serve with butter on the table.